Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty Santorini

I have played only a handful of games of Santorini, and while I have enjoyed it, I don’t feel any great desire to play it anymore. Having said that, I have only played in the ‘base mode’ without any of the ‘god powers’ included in the game. That is probably equivalent to only playing the tutorial mode in a video game, so I will withhold judgement until I have played with the stabilisers off.

Abstract games have never really been my cup of tea anyway. If I were to list my three most important elements in any game, it would look a little like:

  1. Theme
  2. Mechanics
  3. Theme

So obviously abstract games don’t exactly roll my dice, so to speak. If I had to play an abstract, my preference would be for a less complex game, like Santorini. A simple set of mechanics that provide a nice puzzle or challenge for the player.

If you start to complicate that equation and add more layers and mechanics, I can’t help but question why I am taking actions and moving pieces; not finding any satisfactory answers on the board means that I don’t have a compelling reason to continue to play. If I am just pushing cardboard around a vacuum in order to score more points, you have lost me. Hence, Santorini, and my absolute favourite abstract: Hive.

However good Santorini may turn out to be once the God Powers come into play, I very much doubt it will tower high enough to topple Hive from the top spot. Hive is a boardless, chess-like two-player game. Each player has a set of wonderfully chunky, tactile, hexagonal tiles, which they place to form the ‘hive’. Each hex represents a different insect: beetle, grasshopper, etc., each with a different movement rule, à la chess. You place pieces and slide them around the ever-expanding hive in order to trap your opponent’s queen.

It’s simpler than chess (considerably so), but still has enough depth of play to warrant more than one strategy guide available to purchase. While I have long since given up on chess (like any sane person would), Hive is a game that I feel I am capable of learning and improving with all the time, without ever feeling utterly and completely out of my depth.

But all of the depth of Hive comes from strategy, not mechanics. The rules form a very simple framework, and games only take 10-15 minutes (depending on how quickly I lose).

My initial feeling on Santorini was that the rules framework did not allow for much gameplay depth, and it was simply move and counter-move. But the god powers introduce different win conditions and player abilities, so these should hopefully shake things up enough spike my interest in the game again.

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Watch the Skies

Writer_smallerThe Will of the Gods

I love Cyclades. I have heard that its younger brother Kemet is a better game, and that may well be, but in terms of theme, Greek mythology holds more sway over me than Egyptian. Kemet is, broadly speaking, an Egyptian-themed Cyclades, that comes with improved mechanics. But I’ll take a horrific, titanic, unimaginably destructive Kraken over a mewling cat god any day of the week, so Cyclades is the game for me.

At first glance, Cyclades would appear to be your common or garden-variety ‘guys on a map’ type game, with myriad islands of the Greek Cyclades being occupied by troops and fleets of opposing players. Your army can attack and conquer, and you can fortify your islands with ports and fortresses. In the name of civilisation, temples and universities are also an option (how classically Greek). In fact, victory in Cyclades is not even necessarily achieved through martial means. The first player to build two metropolises on their islands wins. A metropolis is constructed by having one of each of the four aforementioned buildings under your control. Of course, you can just wait until your opponents have built theirs and then conquer it with troops.

All standard stuff so far, but the actual mechanics of how this works is what makes Cyclades so different. The game is played out in the Greece of ancient myths and legends; the Greece where gods and monsters ruled and roamed the earth, and mankind was at the mercy of their whims. Your territories in Cyclades earn you gold, and at the start of each turn, you will bid against the other players for the favour of the gods using this gold. It amounts to a type of auction, where you will be striving to earn the favours, and hence powers, of one of five different gods each turn.

With Ares on your side, you can increase your armies and use them to invade. Ares will only help you with land engagements, though. If you want to dominate at sea, you will of course need Poseidon. Thus, your turn becomes wholly dictated by the god you have chosen (or indeed, have been forced to choose after being outbid on the actual god you choose).

So while the gods determine the course of the game, the monsters add colour and allow you to disrupt the plans of other players in wonderfully chaotic ways. As well as bidding on the gods, on their turn a player can also harness the power of the likes of the Kraken, Harpies, the Sirens and Pegasus, allowing them to destroy fleets, stop invasions, and reverse the fortunes of others. All these actions are of course performed to the satisfying background symphony of teeth being ground in frustration as a Kraken rears from the depths to wreak havoc on a well-planned naval assault.

It’s not total chaos, of course. Everyone can see the monsters available to bid on, and thus have the opportunity to take them in a preventative measure. Cyclades then becomes one of those great games where you never have the resource to do everything you want to do, and each turn becomes wrought with difficult decisions. Taking a monster to prevent your opponent advancing only becomes possible by sacrificing precious resources and slowing down your own plans.

It’s not a perfect, game. Although the map changes with different player counts, with fewer than five players not all of the gods are available to bid on every turn. In some three player games this hampered progress, as without certain gods you simply cannot progress. But overall it is a lot of fun, and certainly to be recommended. Unless Pharaohs, sphinxes and cat gods are your bag. In which case, check out Kemet.

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